Charles Mungoshi’s ‘Close Shave‘ ponders the fleeting and precarious nature of life as the narrator observes a plane flying low overhead. The ambiguous title refers both to the fact the narrator is at a barber while also figuratively alluding to the fragility of life.
‘Close Shave‘ demonstrates how close we are to catastrophe at any given moment, no matter how benign it may seem.
The poem begins by describing the loud noise made by a low-flying plane above the narrator’s head as they are being shaved in what seems to be a poorly constructed building. The sound clearly makes the narrator feels nervous and, coupled with the close presence of the razor, makes him consider the fragility of life.
He appears in a contemplative mood, recalling past events perhaps as a way of distracting himself from the frightening nature of his present circumstances. The poem ends as a clump of hair falls to his lap while he simultaneously remembers some incident from his past that is not revealed to the reader.
Born to a farming family in 1947, Charles Mungoshi went on to become one of Zimbabwe’s finest writers. During his long career, he published both novels and poetry and won numerous literary awards, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize on two occasions. Much of his work was preoccupied by his native Zimbabwe and he regularly expressed anti-colonial sentiment in his work. He was granted the position of writer-in-residence at the University of Zimbabwe in 1995. Mungoshi died in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, in 2019 at the age of seventy-one.
A plane roars above
rattling the loose sheets of the roof.
Clearly he hears the click-click
of the barber’s cold shears
close to his jugular vein.
The poet begins by using zoomorphism when describing how the plane “roars above” which emphasises the volume and close proximity of the plane to the ground. It also implies the plane is a predatory figure actively hunting those beneath it which adds to the man’s sense of unease. The uncertain connotations of the adjective “loose” reinforces the uneasy atmosphere by implying the building is poorly constructed and that it could easily collapse and bury the man.
The onomatopoeic “click-click” immerses the reader in the scene and this sense of immersion is also achieved through the sensory associations of the adjective “cold”. The word “shears” appears incongruous as one would associate this term more with animals than people. This is perhaps intended to imply the man feels trapped and without choice, like an animal who is sheared by its owner. Finally, the mention of the jugular vein imbues the poem with an ominous sense of danger by reminding the reader how little it would take for the blade to slip and threaten the man’s life.
He swallows, dryly –
softly – heavily falls in his lap.
The adverb “dryly” helps demonstrate the man’s nervousness because having a dry mouth is commonly associated with feeling uneasy or apprehensive. The metaphorical claim that a distant memory “brushes his brow” implies the memory he is recalling to be a detailed and all-consuming experience, so much so that he can almost physically feel its presence. The metaphor also implies that memory is fleeting and that the man cannot escape his presence for long.
The alliterative “big ball” creates a dull, thudding sound which could perhaps imply that the man’s experience of his present circumstances is repetitive and uninspiring. The fact his hair is grey suggests he is an older man which, when coupled with his unease and the escapism he enjoyed when remembering something from his past, indicates he may be contemplating his own mortality and the passage of time.
The oxymoronic claim that his hair falls both softly and heavily emphasises the fact he is experiencing life both literally and figuratively. On the one hand, the hair falls softly because it doesn’t weigh much. On the other hand, it falls heavily because it reminds him of the fact he is aging and will eventually have to face up to his own mortality.
The poem is written in a single stanza and uses free verse. It is a very short poem, containing only eleven lines. This brevity and lack of structure could reflect the man’s feelings that life is moving very quickly. It could also imply that life is unpredictable and that there are any number of dangers that could cause us harm.
The title refers literally to the fact the man is being shaved at a barber. However, the phrase is also used when a person is attempting to convey how close they were to disaster or pain. This meaning matches up with the man’s sense of panic and worry at the various dangers he perceives around him.
The nature of the man’s recollection is not revealed to the reader, as the poem is more concerned with his external experience of the room. However, it could be that he is remembering something pleasant as a means of distraction. Conversely, it could be a negative memory of a time he felt in danger, given his fearful demeanor in the poem.
The poem’s message appears to be that danger surrounds us at all times and we cannot avoid it, even if we are doing seemingly benign things like having a shave. The poem implies that the plane could crash, the building could collapse, or that the blade may cut the man’s throat. This inescapable sense of peril can either liberate a person, by reminding them that they cannot control things and should, therefore, just get on with life. However, it seems to have the opposite effect on the man in the poem.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Close Shave‘ might want to explore similar poetry. For example:
- ‘Air Raid‘ by Chinua Achebe – Another poem that focuses on the helpless people cowering from the threat that comes from above.
- ‘When Stretch’d On One’s Bed‘ by Jane Austen – Another poem in which a person’s experience of their own fragility causes them to reflect on how they live life.
- ‘A Coffin is a Small Domain‘ by Emily Dickinson – This poem explores mortality and captures the anxiety of contemplating one’s finite existence.